What to Do When Your Kid Has Angry Outbursts

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“He just gets so angry. Completely loses control. He yells, hits, and even throws toys across the room!” Sound familiar? This mom didn’t know how to deal with her son’s angry outbursts, and she certainly isn’t alone.

Many young children struggle with regulating their emotions, and the “tantrums” characteristic of the toddler years can look more like angry outbursts as kids grow. One thing I tell parents over and over again is that anger is often the “surface emotion.” When you dig beneath the surface, you find all kinds of triggers that contribute to what looks like anger.

Sadness, anxiety, exhaustion, and even loneliness can all trigger intense emotions in young children that result in angry outbursts.

While the angry outbursts certainly can be overwhelming, and sometimes impact the whole family, there are steps you can take to help your child learn to cope with and work through these intense emotions.

Track the intensity

Sometimes an outburst feels huge in the moment, especially if it happens in the middle of a family party, but it might only last a few moments. Other times the outburst is the last in a series of outbursts and parents feel like they can’t handle one more thing. It’s a lot. When you have other kids in the mix, it’s hard to spend so much time attending to a pattern of anger and intense emotion.

Tracking the outbursts helps you determine how often the outbursts actually happen, how long they last, and what might have contributed to them.

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Keep a notebook handy (or even a pile of scrap paper) to jot down a few notes. Time of day, length of the outburst, what happened just before, last time your child ate and slept, and any other information that might help.

Review your notes every few days to look for patterns.

Don’t meet anger with anger

It might be tempting to meet outbursts with consequences and immediate feedback on how the behavior impacts the family. But this kind of negative input will only intensify the situation. When parents meet anger with anger, emotions run high and both kids and parents struggle to recover.

Meet your child with clear, calming words. A little bit of empathy goes a long way toward diffusing heated emotions and helping kids learn to self-regulate.

Make a plan when your child is calm

The urge to “stop” anger actually teaches kids to stuff and internalize their negative emotions. This only makes outbursts more intense and hard to cope with as the anger intensifies. Anger is a perfectly healthy emotion and it’s better to allow your child the time and space to work through it than to try to stamp it out with consequences or bribe it out with rewards.

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Making an anger plan with your child helps your child know what to do when his emotions feel intense and out of control. Creating a calming center in your home that includes things like stress balls, Play-Doh, and coloring supplies gives your child a place to go when he’s overwhelmed with emotion. I also encourage parents to pack stress balls in backpacks and purses to help work out frustration on the go.

Kids respond well to visuals, but every child is different. Try a few strategies with your child (i.e. deep breathing, mindfulness app, Play-Doh, paper tearing, etc.) to find one that works for him. Once you have a few good strategies, create a visual that reads, “When I feel angry I can …” Please be certain to add “ask for help or a hug from mom or dad” to that visual. It might seem obvious to you, but I find that many kids don’t automatically assume this is an option.

Take care of basics

Hunger, exhaustion, and lack of downtime can wreak havoc on young children. Please make sure to practice self-care at home, and teach your children how to respond to and understand their anger cues (i.e. racing heart, clenched muscles, feeling hot or dizzy.)

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If you find that your child experiences angry outbursts that last 45 minutes or more (at least once a day) and struggles to recover, it’s a good idea to reach out to your pediatrician to get a referral for an evaluation.

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What to Do When Your Kid Has Angry Outbursts

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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